Cal State Long Beach Geography professor Tom Frazier knows the Berlin Wall intimately. In fact, he’s got several pieces of it at home.
The Wall, which “fell” 25 years ago on Nov. 9, 1989, did so while Frazier was in Germany, though he was not in Berlin at the time. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990. Much of the wall was demolished quickly — though a few sections still remain today at their original sites.
Fast forward 25 years and Frazier is excited to have many of his artifacts, including some of those shipped pieces, on display in campus’ University Art Museum (UAM) during the “Barbara Klemm: Light and Dark” photo exhibition. The exhibit, which runs through Sunday, Dec. 14, features 124 iconic black-and-white photographs by one of Germany’s most distinguished photojournalists.
“No one knew the Wall was going to fall that day. It fell by accident,” he said. “Had I known, I would have certainly made the effort to be there.”
According to Frazier, who was living in Munich at the time, leading up to that historic day there were a series of demonstrations in various German cities and freedom movements taking place in nearby countries such as (then) Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
“The Iron Curtain was kind of ripping a little bit,” he said, “and in Berlin on the night of Nov. 9 there was a big committee meeting where they were discussing travel freedoms for East German citizens. There were some proposals, there were some directives and then a reporter just innocently asked, ‘When would that take affect?’ One of the bureaucrats looked at some papers and said, ‘Well, it doesn’t say, so I suppose immediately.’” And the rest is, quite literally, history.
The word spread quickly, of course, and immediately individuals began gathering at the wall—both sides of the Wall.
“Surprisingly, the East German guards who were at checkpoints on the Berlin side of the Wall said, ‘Okay, you can go through,’” said Frazier, “and they just opened the gates. It was overwhelming people, social and cultural power. The previous day you could have been shot and killed for trying to cross and within a 24-hour period it was completely different. Right after the Wall fell, Berlin became kind of a wild, wild east place.”
And now, a generation later and somewhat ironically so, sections of the Wall need to be protected because individuals, including tourists, continue to chip away at it. In addition, the Wall is protected due in part because it stands in the heart of Berlin which is the most expensive real estate and the most important part of the city geographically.
The following June after the Wall came down, Frazier was able to visit the will first-hand.
“I, like a lot of other people, went to Berlin to see for myself all the changes and to go see East Berlin again,” said Frazier. “I had been there before when the Wall was in effect, but no one thought the Wall was ever going to fall.”
So, like many others, Frazier took it upon himself to garner a piece of history. In fact, quite a few pieces.
“There were typically people near the Wall with little tables or blankets with picks that looked like railroad spikes and sledgehammer mallets and they would rent them to you for a couple of Deutschmarks,” said Frazier, noting the original Wall consisted of steel-reinforced, concrete aggregate panels that stood 12 feet high. “It was difficult to chip away at it and the best parts were those with graffiti, which came almost entirely from the west side of the Wall because that’s where people had the freedom to approach it safely. From the east side you could not even get close to the Wall. That area was called the ‘no man’s land’ or ‘death strip.’”
Frazier spent about an hour chipping away in what he described as a carnival-like atmosphere all along the Wall.
“People were really inventive,” he said. “Out of nowhere someone would come up with a giant sledgehammer. Early on, some people would even drive their vehicles up into the Wall to break it up.”
With cement being heavy, of course, Frazier knew he couldn’t really lug his pieces of the Wall around, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.
“I went to the German post office,” he said. “I got a pack box, wrapped stuff in the newspaper of the day, threw in the map of Berlin I was using at the time and shipped it back to California.”
His foresight is the reason people are now able to see his those historic objects on display at the university.
“I was very honored when museum Brian Trimble contacted me and asked very innocently if I had any materials on Germany,” said Frazier. “As a geographer and an academic I was thrilled by his team that came to my home and took a lot of materials, including pieces of the Wall and documented them by photographing and measuring them. That thrilled me to see this being scientifically documented and given a real provenance. I have so much stuff so we had to choose what was appropriate. I think it should be displayed if people are interested in seeing it. It doesn’t do any good sitting in a box.”
And, for students and community members looking to learn more, every other summer Frazier offers a short-term study abroad program to Berlin. He works with the College of Continuing and Professional Education to coordinate the class called “The Urban Scene Case Study Berlin.”
“I’m really honored that people are interested in what I have to say about it,” said Frazier. “I’ve immersed myself in the topic for so long and I forget that it’s very exotic sometimes and it’s such a fundamental part of our history and what it represents.”